The sea is rising faster than ever. How can we prepare?

NOAA and interagency partners just released an updated technical report, showing that sea levels will rise by up to a foot nationally by 2050, and potentially by up to two feet by 2100 depending on rates of emissions.

While the findings are stark, we have an urgent window of opportunity to increase protection for communities, natural resources and infrastructure across our coasts and watersheds.

Here are five recommendations for how government leaders can increase the resilience of coastal communities before the worst effects of sea level rise take hold.

1. Advance holistic, long-term solutions to address comprehensive flood risks.

Climate change is increasing flood risk due to sea level rise more intense hurricanes, rising tides and increased rainfall. To address growing flood risks, we must develop comprehensive, science-based plans that address flooding today and in the future.

Louisiana released its first Coastal Master Plan 15 years ago. North Carolina, South Carolina, New Jersey, Virginia and Florida have either completed or initiated their first plans with additional comprehensive updates expected in the future.

At the federal level, a bipartisan group of legislators introduced the Shoreline Health Oversight, Restoration, Resilience, and Enhancement (SHORRE) Act, which will empower the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) to develop holistic and equitable solutions to address comprehensive flood risks across our nation’s coasts and watersheds. EDF and more than 100 partners called for this mandate last year in response to the Corps’ plans to address only storm surge flooding in places like New York and Miami, while omitting sea level rise and tidal flooding.

2. Lead a whole-of-government approach to address rising seas.

Sea level rise requires a whole-of-government approach, as the issue affects every aspect of life for vulnerable communities, from housing and transpiration to natural resources and jobs.

States are realizing this need in places like Louisiana, where Gov. Edwards issued an executive order establishing a Chief Resilience Officer (CRO) position charged with integrating resilience planning across all state agencies. This kind of coordinated, state-level resilience leadership and planning are critical, and it’s why more than 10 states have created CRO positions with more coming.

A report released last year by EDF, Environmental Council of the States and National Emergency Management Association lays out best practices and recommendations for how governors and legislatures can establish and support CROs to meet the challenges of a changing climate.

Congress is considering the bipartisan National Climate Adaptation and Resilience Strategy Act to streamline the federal response to climate hazards. The bill establishes a CRO in the White House to lead a whole-of-government adaptation and resilience strategy and plan.

3. Address disproportionate flood risk to increase equity and resilience.

Flooding does not impact all communities equally. As I’ve written previously, our country has a flood risk gap that puts low wealth and communities of color at greater risk of flooding and makes it harder for these communities to recover after a flood or climate disaster.

A new study published in Nature Climate Change echoed this reality, indicating that future flood risk will disproportionately impact Black communities on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.

Our policies and actions must address these systemic inequities by working to increase equity with resilience. States like Virginia have dedicated funding to communities they define as low-income or communities of color to address disproportionate impacts. We must also work to strengthen flood disclosure laws and ensure everyone has access to information about their current and future flood risk. We should increase capacity within communities, so they can design solutions to reduce flood risks, rather than having all solutions come from a government agency or state capital. Lastly, the Corps, FEMA and other agencies must re-think the cost-benefit analysis approach to flood risk reduction, which has increased the flood risk gap and left many communities behind.

4. Invest now in the best solutions to reduce impacts of future disasters.

By investing proactively, we can save lives, reduce human suffering and reduce the cost of disasters, as every $1 invested before disaster saves at least $6 in disaster recovery.

Our country has an unprecedented opportunity to make significant investments in a more resilient future, if leaders prioritize the right solutions.

The Infrastructure Investment & Jobs Act (IIIJA) brings huge investments for critical resilience initiatives across the federal government and to states, including nearly $23 billion for the Corps’ Civil Works program, for solutions like natural infrastructure and flood mitigation. Funding for FEMA’s BRIC program will triple over the next five years, at a time when the program received a record-setting $4.16 billion in applications.

At the state level, Virginia’s participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) brought $102 million to communities across the commonwealth for flood resilience projects, with 25% of funding set aside for low-income geographies. And Louisiana is poised to hit a milestone by investing $1 billion annually over the next three years for critical coastal restoration and resilience projects.

5. Harness nature as a powerful buffer against sea level rise.

A study published last year valued annual global coastal wetlands protection at nearly $450 billion and 4,600 lives saved. This cost savings and protection are why coastal wetlands – along with oyster reefs, barrier islands and more – are a vital natural solution to build resilience from sea level rise.

These natural infrastructure solutions can be implemented faster and adapt more effectively over time compared to traditional grey solutions like seawalls. They also create jobs and improve quality of life with cleaner water and recreational opportunities.

New York is rebuilding oyster reefs and Louisiana is reconnecting its Mississippi River to wetlands to maintain these landscapes as natural buffers from the encroaching seas.

While the findings of this latest study are stark, they provide a powerful call to action for our leaders to protect vulnerable communities before it’s too late. We have no time to lose, but if we make the right decisions today, we can maintain a vital future for our coastal communities despite the challenges ahead.

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